Continuing thanks to Chris, for writing this follow on post from his last about Ian Millet. at the foot of this last post was a letter sent on the crew’s loss by the then Wing Commander of 75(NZ) Squadron Cyril Kay D.F.C.
Cyril “Cyrus” Kay was a founding member of the New Zealand Flight, and 75 (NZ) Squadron’s first Squadron Leader, under the command of Wing Commander Maurice Buckley.
Aviation had struggled in New Zealand through the 1920’s and 1930’s through lack of Government foresight, and then the effects of the Depression, so any Kiwi who had qualified as a pilot and established a career in either the RNZAF or RAF by 1939, had been part of its very early development. And they had got there not just on their ability, but through considerable initiative and persistence.
Both Buckley and Kay had already made names for themselves as pioneers of New Zealand aviation, well before the impending war brought them to England, and into the New Zealand Flight.
Cyril Eyton Kay was born in Auckland on 25 June 1902, and grew up in Devonport, where he enjoyed sailing. But a flight with one of the early barnstormers, while still at secondary school, inspired him to become a pilot.
He applied to join the RNZAF, but at that time only refresher training for existing pilots was available, so he worked his passage to Britain and tried to enlist in the Royal Air Force. Given only limited prospects, he approached the former New Zealand governor general, Lord Jellicoe, against whom he had once won a sailing race. Jellicoe wrote, ‘if Cyril Kay is as good in the air as he is on the sea, he will be an acquisition to the Royal Air Force’. Kay entered the RAF on a five-year short-service commission on 14 July 1926.
Serving on army co-operation squadrons, Kay earned an ‘above average’ pass from the prestigious Central Flying School. He specialised in navigation and meteorology and in 1928 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society. In 1929 he flew in the RAF Air Pageant set-piece displays at Hendon.
The following year, determined to break the England-to-Australia record of 15½ days, he flew as co-pilot with a fellow New Zealander, Flying Officer Harold Piper, in a tiny Desoutter monoplane, from Croydon to Darwin.
Bad weather, engine problems and eight forced landings turned this into an epic of six weeks and two days – the men lost a stone each in weight.
In 1931 he attended the Wasserkuppe gliding school, the ‘birthplace of gliding’ in Germany, and achieved the distinction of being the first ‘English’ aviator to secure the “C” gliding certificate. He then became an instructor at a flying school in Digby, Lincolnshire.
In 1932 Kay returned to New Zealand, working in commercial aviation, and was involved in the establishment of Kay Robot Air-Pilots Ltd in 1934 – he had invented an automatic compressed air stabiliser (autopilot) for aircraft. His invention was overtaken by the gyroscopic stabiliser about 18 months later.
In October 1934 Kay competed in ‘The Great Race’, the MacRobertson Centenary Air Race from London to Melbourne, with another New Zealander, Sqdn Ldr Jim D. Hewett, and wireless operator Frank Stewart. Their entry was New Zealand-backed, and they flew a twin-engined de Havilland Dragon Rapide ‘Tainui’ ZK-ACO, Race No. 60, into fifth place.
Their intention was to also demonstrate the feasibility of an England to New Zealand air route, and on Nov 14th 1934, they flew “Tainui” from Richmond, Sydney directly across the Tasman Sea to Palmerston North, New Zealand. This was the first direct flight from England to NZ, possibly the first and only recorded London to Palmerston North direct international flight, it set a Tasman crossing record that stood for several years (12hrs 9mins), and Kay and Hewett went into the history books as being the first Kiwis to fly the Tasman.
Kay then applied to join the Royal New Zealand Air Force, being accepted on 8 July 1935 with the rank of Flying Officer.
Granted a permanent commission in January 1938, he became chief navigation instructor at Wigram six months later.
In May 1939 Kay travelled to Britain to join the New Zealand Flight as a flight commander and navigation leader. It had been formed to ferry 30 Vickers-Armstrongs Wellington I bombers back to New Zealand, but with the outbreak of the Second World War it remained in Britain and became the nucleus of 75 (New Zealand) Squadron.
Kay led the squadron’s first operational mission, which dropped propaganda leaflets over northern Germany on the night of 27–28 March 1940.
This photo appears to have been taken around May-June 1940. To the left of Kay is P/O E.V. Best and second to the extreme left is Air Gunner Sgt J. Purdy. The Wellington in the background is P9212, AA-C, the regular a/c of F/O N. Williams during May 1940.
Cyril Kay was awarded the D.F.C. for an attack against German units near Baileux in Belgium on 7 June 1940.
Distinguished Flying Cross citation, June 1940:
“This officer was captain of an aircraft ordered to attack important targets in the forests south of Bourlers and Baileux during a night in June. In spite of extremely difficult conditions, and in the face of severe opposition, he successfully bombed the objective, starting several fires which gave accurate direction to other aircraft of this sortie. He then descended to a low altitude and, again in the face of heavy opposition, attacked the woods with all his machine guns. Sqn. Ldr. Kay has conducted a number of operations in recent weeks and has shown daring, determination and outstanding ability.”
Between November 1940 and September 1941 he commanded the squadron on intensive operations against transport and fuel installations in Germany and occupied countries, earning the respect and affection of his crews.
He was promoted to Acting W/C in January 1941, taking over from Buckley, who remained on base as Station Commander, and was eventually himself replaced as commanding officer in September 1941 by W/C R. Sawrey-Cookson.
Kay returned to New Zealand in October 1942 where he commanded training establishments at New Plymouth, home of the navigation school (1942–43), Ohakea (1943–44) and Wigram (1944–46). Usually known as Cyrus, the stockily built Kay was described as a superb instructor and a brilliant and daring pilot.
After the war he attended the Imperial Defence College, then joined the Air Board as air member for supply and was promoted to the rank of air commodore in 1947. He had a major role in determining the shape of the post-war RNZAF and in the introduction of jet aircraft in 1951–52.
After a posting to London, where he became air officer commanding at the RNZAF London Headquarters in 1951, he returned to become air member for personnel in 1953. In May 1956 Kay led a goodwill mission to the United States. On 5th June he was promoted to air vice marshal, and appointed chief of the air staff and air officer commanding.
To cap off an amazing career in aviation, that had started in the very early days of the travelling barnstormers, on 29th of March 1958 C.A.S., A.V-M. Cyril Kay became the first New Zealander to break the sound barrier over home ground, in a U.S.A.F. F-100.
He retired on 30th June 1958.
Cyril Kay died in London on 29 April 1993.
Reference, and extracts from, ‘Kay, Cyril Eyton’, by Brian Lockstone, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.